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Rafael Nadal's French Open secret garden

May 25, 2013
Rafael Nadal has only lost one match at the French Open © PA Photos
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Close your eyes and slip away to your favorite place.

Maybe it's the seashore you visited as a child. A cosmopolitan city teeming with light and energy. A secret garden filled with lilacs and peonies and hydrangeas. A place where everything is always right and good.

Roland Garros doesn't have the polished, modern veneer of the other sprawling grand slam venues. No gargantuan mechanical roofs, yawning food courts, acres of presumptuous potted pansies. A product of the late 1920s, the cramped Parisian ballpark shows its age - some would call it character - with subtle cracks in the stadium walls, cobblestone walkways and that marvelous burnt sienna clay.

Court Philippe Chatrier, the world's largest tennis court, is Rafael Nadal's secret garden, a place where he is not only safe, but very nearly invincible. Upon that sweeping, dusty canvas, he has rendered some of the sport's finest pieces of art.

Rafa has played in eight French Opens and won an unprecedented seven titles. His record there is an astonishing 52-1, the highest standard ever by any player at any grand slam. And he's still only 26; Nadal turns 27 during the second week of the French Open, which begins on Sunday.

Jimmy Connors enjoyed a similar superiority at the US Open in New York, where he won six of his eight grand slam singles titles. And yet he managed to lose there 17 times.

During his recent book tour, Connors tried to imagine winning 52 of 53 matches in a single tournament.

"To even think that you could dominate so consistently at Roland Garros," he said, shaking his head, "well, that's pretty incredible. I was comfortable in New York, and that's how you play your best tennis. You walk out and you feel like there's less pressure, that you have things under control, even if you're a little off.

"As great as Rafa is everywhere else, too, that's where he's in his comfort zone, loose and relaxed."

Bjorn Borg, the great Swedish champion, won six titles at Roland Garros and 49 of his 51 matches. That's the second-best record ever at a major, a 96% success ratio. Nadal currently is better than 98%.

Borg's Wimbledon mark (51-4) is third on the all-time list, with John Newcombe's Australian Open record of 46-4 fourth. Roger Federer's 64-8 body of work is best at the US Open. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic's 39-5 mark at the Australian Open (39-5) and Rod Laver's 50-7 at Wimbledon don't even make the top 10 list.

Darren Cahill, who coached former world No. 1-ranked players Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, started laughing when Nadal's 52-1 record was broached.

"In my mind," he said a few weeks ago, "that's the greatest clay-court record ever. Ten years ago, it would be inconceivable for anyone to have done that at Roland Garros. Unfathomable.

"This year he's been in all seven finals in his first seven tournaments. He'll be the favourite in Paris in most people's eyes."

When pitcher Nolan Ryan crossed the 5,000-strikeout threshold, Sports Illustrated ran the impressive list of his victims. Rafa's roster of the vanquished in Paris is far shorter but no less remarkable. Not surprisingly, Federer has been the most familiar foil, losing all five of their meetings, followed by Djokovic and Hewitt (0-4), Nicolas Almagro (0-3) and Ivan Ljubicic and Thomaz Bellucci (0-2). Twenty-seven others lost to Nadal in their single encounter at Roland Garros. Rafa is a perfect 10-0 versus Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Robin Soderling, the only man to beat him there, lost his other three matches against Nadal - each in straight sets.

Rafa's combined set record is a splendid 156-14 (.918), and he has scored 41 straight-set wins. For what it's worth, he's also a perfect 8-0 against left-handers and 44-1 against righties.

Wins by country: Spain, 9; Argentina, Switzerland and France, 5; Australia and Serbia, 4; Brazil, Croatia and Sweden, 3; Italy and the United States, 2; Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and Uzbekistan, 1.

So why is Rafa so comfortable at Roland Garros? He is a notorious creature of habit, and it was on red clay that he learned the game. His Uncle Toni started him out at the age of four on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the city of Manacor.

Carlos Moya, who also comes from Mallorca, won his only major at Roland Garros, in 1998. He served as a mentor of sorts for the young Nadal. Even when Rafa was 16, Moya was predicting that he would go on to win many majors and perhaps at one point in his career be virtually unbeatable.

Rafael Nadal has lifted the trophy on seven occasions © Getty Images
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Nadal never played the junior tournament at Roland Garros. Like the Williams sisters, he avoided the traditional junior path to professional tennis. In April 2002, at the age of 15, Rafa won his first ATP-level match and later reached the semifinals of the Wimbledon juniors. His grand slam debut came a year later, when he became the youngest man to reach the third round of Wimbledon since Boris Becker in 1984.

His ranking would have placed him in the main draw at Roland Garros in 2004, but a stress fracture of his left ankle forced Nadal to miss the tournament. He did, however, visit Roland Garros for the first time during the event. In 2005, however, Rafa ran the table as the favourite after winning in Monte Carlo and Rome.

Wearing long hair, longer Capri pants and a sleeveless shirt, Nadal started the tournament at age 18 and finished as the 19-year-old champion. On the way, he beat Richard Gasquet, Sebastien Grosjean, David Ferrer, Federer and, in the final, Mariano Puerta.

Rafa displayed a dash and determination rare for any age.

"It's not just the technical things," Cahill observed. "There are many factors involved. But overall, Rafa has a spirit and desire to compete that doesn't come with many athletes."

In 2006, when Federer came into the French Open having won the previous three majors, Nadal was insistent that he not win a fourth. Surviving a third-round match with Paul-Henri Mathieu that went nearly five hours, Nadal dropped the first set to Federer in the final before rallying to win the last three. It was a similar scenario in 2007 and 2008, with Nadal winning his third and fourth titles at Roland Garros over an increasingly ineffective Federer.

Cahill broke down the specifics of Rafa's game that make him so lethal on clay:

"To start, being a lefty is a slight advantage. Getting heavy topspin with the forehand, out of the opponent's strike zone, helps him. He's one of the fastest players in the game and one of the best movers on clay, which also helps him. His backhand has improved out of sight. And while his serve doesn't play a huge factor, he can get a forehand on the first shot when he wants to.

"At the same time, clay slows down the big serves and forehands of opponents. Those are a lot of little factors and it all adds up to one glorious larger truth: The guy himself. He's an incredible athlete to watch going about his craft, from first point to last, even the way he practices. Everything is meticulously planned. He knows exactly what he needs to do. Until someone can force him to do otherwise, he's going to keep repeating that winning pattern."

Rafa was 31-0 at Roland Garros - and 48-0 in his previous best-of-five matches on clay - when he faced Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. Later, the world would discover that Rafa's knees were ailing, and his psyche as well because his parents were in the process of separating. That doesn't diminish what Soderling achieved on a late Sunday afternoon.

The Swede handled Nadal, 6-2 6-7 (2) 6-4 7-6 (2), and ruined his chance of becoming the first man or woman to win five consecutive titles at Roland Garros.

"All of us athletes, we know that when we walk on the court we can either win or lose," Nadal said afterward. "I know for a fact anything can happen, and I have to accept them both in the same way. No one remembers defeats on the long run. People remember victories."

Roger Federer won the title in Rafael Nadal's absence in 2009 © Getty Images
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Four years after the fact, Soderling is oddly circumspect when he talks about that match. He is currently out of tennis, fighting a variety of ailments.

After missing Wimbledon that year, Nadal came blistering back in 2010. He won the French Open (beating Soderling in the final), and then took the titles at Wimbledon and the US Open in his best season ever. In the 2011 final, he again beat Federer, who had completed his career grand slam the year Nadal lost to Soderling.

Last year, Nadal beat Djokovic in a four-set final. Going forward, it appears Djokovic will be his biggest challenge at Roland Garros. Some believe that if not for a well-timed rain delay, Djokovic might have beaten Rafa in that final.

Rafa will make his journey to Paris after a seven-month hiatus to mend his knees. If he wins this year's French Open - and he is widely seen as the favourite, despite a straight-set loss to Djokovic in Monte Carlo - it will be his ninth consecutive season with at least one grand slam singles title, something that's never been done. Borg, Pete Sampras and Federer all managed to do it for eight straight years.

But will Rafa finish his Roland Garros career with just that one loss on his dance card?

"People still talk about it because he's only lost once, but he's going to have more losses in the French Open," Soderling insisted. "I don't know, maybe he'll win five in a row, but I think in five years or something like that he'll lose another match in the French - then it won't be about me anymore."

It's quite possible Nadal will lose another match or two at Roland Garros. But which will it be - one or two? With a second loss, Nadal still would have a better winning percentage than Borg in Paris. He doesn't seem like the kind of athlete who will hang around past his prime.

Even in retirement, whenever that comes, Roland Garros will always be Nadal's secret garden.

This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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